Although wildland fires typically get more press, the recent spate of epic floods has shouldered them aside in grabbing the top headlines. Yellowstone National Park got clobbered several weeks ago, followed more recently by record-topping rains that swept through . . . Death Valley, of all places, trapping approximately a thousand visitors and staff and so thoroughly devastating roads and other infrastructure that the national park is unlikely to reopen this year.
Farther east, three separate downpours over eight days, in Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois, destroyed swaths of entire communities and killed at least 39. As with the floods that devastated parts of Wyoming, Montana and California, decades-old rainfall records were broken and repeated references were made to “thousand-year floods,” meaning that the accepted odds of that much rain falling at one time were less than 1 in 1,000. Clearly, the odds-makers are overdue for an overhaul of their playbooks.
Such an unfortunate abundance of precipitation in some areas–even as drought intensifies in others–should no longer surprise anyone. Global warming produces a hotter atmosphere that can hold more moisture, resulting in heavier rainstorms. The surprise is that people with too much money and not enough horse-sense persist in thinking that weather extremes are for other people and won’t affect them. Or if they do concede that perhaps they should be paying closer attention, they nonetheless grossly underestimate the speed, size and scale of the forces arrayed against them.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a misbegotten plan to build a 57-site glamping campground in the floodway of the scenic Gallatin River in southwest Montana–the same area that was hit by the storm system that eviscerated Yellowstone National Park. The developer contends that he’ll be prepared for the inevitable flooding because the most vulnerable sites will be occupied by “Conestoga wagons” that can be towed out of the way when the river runs high. The 19 wagon train emigrants who drowned in 1849 while crossing the River Platte, near Fort Laramie–among many others who suffered a similar fate–must not have had the right kind of wagon.
But now there’s a proposal in Nebraska that blows away the Gallatin River project for heedlessness. As tentatively approved this past week by the Valley City Council, just west of Omaha, up to 240 RV sites will be created along a three-quarter-mile stretch of the “wet side” of the Platte River–the bank more prone to flooding. Promotional literature for the proposed Platte River Resort, touting it as the state’s “premier RV resort,” evokes snorts of derision from local residents, who point out that the “resort” won’t have a sewage dump station, bathrooms or showers–never mind more resort-like amenities, like a swimming pool or snack bar–because permanent construction is not permitted in the state’s floodways.
Further overshadowing the project is the fact that there’s only one road in and out of the area. Immediately north of the site is a small residential community known as Sokol Camp, with 19 full-time residents whose homes barely escaped severe damage in a 2019 flood. If–when–another severe flood forces everyone to evacuate, they ask, what will happen when a couple of hundred RVs simultaneously clog the only escape route? “It’s in a floodway–it has a chance of flooding every single year,” pointed out John Winkler, general manager of a Nebraska agency tasked with reducing flood risks.
The city council split 3-2 on its preliminary approval, overruling its own planning commission and giving a green light for the developer to work on meeting 11 conditions required for a conditional use permit. Opponents have hired lawyers for possible legal action, and a recall effort against the three council members who voted aye is being discussed on the community’s Facebook page. And the developer appears to be digging in, justifying his plans with the claim that an RV park is the “highest and best use” of the property.
That’s the kind of transactional mule-headedness that often heralds tragedy. Sometimes the “best” use is use-less, which is to say, no use at all